Kurt Vonnegut said that this book had 3 morals.
1. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
2. “When you’re dead you’re dead.”
3. “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”
The first one is nihilism. The second one is fatalism. The third one is optimism.
The plot is that a Nazi propaganda master was in fact a undercover spy for the US and how a series of bizarre events played out as the result of it. It is widely accepted that the first moral is what this book is about. However, as a reader and fan of Kurt Vonnegut, I think there is a little more to the 3 morals and how Kurt Vonnegut got to them. The first and second are are really set-ups for the third.
People often talk about guiding principles for their actions. These principles, be it morality, religion, etc., together with the actions dictated (mostly) by them, form the basis for public judgement. In the book, Campbell, the main character, was put into a situation where it was almost impossible to judge. On one hand, he did a fantastic job performing his Nazi propaganda function and brainwashed a lot of people during and after the war. On the other hand, he also did accomplish his spy function well by getting secret messages out through his broadcasting.
On the surface, it seems the paradox coming from the fact that part of his action (Nazi propaganda) is inconsistent with his guiding principle (bigger interest for the Allies). In order to accomplish A, one must do B. Even though B is not consistent with A, but B is accepted as a necessary evil if A is achieved. In other more familiar words, the end will justify the mean. However, the issue with this argument is that it is all well when the consequence of B is well smaller than that of A, which makes it acceptable. But what will happen when B causes larger and larger damages and becomes hard to swallow? Where do we draw the line of the relative impact? No, take a step back, how would one even know the consequences of A and B in advance?
But Vonnegut went beyond that. By saying “we are what we pretend to be”, he not only acknowledged the importance of the means and its impact, but simultaneously questioned implicitly the legitimacy of those guiding principles. According to Vonnegut, those principles are never fully supported or sometimes just blatant lies (a theme he later developed further in Cat’s Cradle). Therefore it is meaningless to talk about guiding principles, and people are always “pretending” because what they relied upon as guidance are in fact empty (nihilism). And the only measuring stick against one’s action is the means and the impact, which we should be careful about.
Besides “guiding principle”, a second way for people to justify their actions is through confession and redemption, by which people can “save” themselves. This is especially prevalent in religions, where confession and redemption are promised as ways to go to “Heaven” after death. On this, Vonnegut is brutally direct and simple. “When you’re dead you’re dead.” So stop dreaming about salvation before or after your taking bad actions (especially before). One’s fate is determined by their actions taken and to be taken (fatalism). There is no deal to be made later.
And that two terrible “isms” bring us to the third moral of the book, which is to me the most important one. “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.” Of course “make love” is a metaphor for all good things of being human. In the end, Mother Night makes me want to weep. And any book that makes people weep essentially is about the positive things of being alive.
But wait, didn’t Vonnegut just deny all guiding principles as empty and lies? Yes, he did. But that is the point. Don’t pretend you don’t know what is good and what is bad, and have to find an empty principle as excuses to do bad things. That will inadvertently make you a bad person.